Montana BHA Responds to New Elk Management Plan

FWP’s new Elk Plan has been adopted.

Last revisited in 2004, the long awaited plan has a lot to like, but falls short of expectations. 

Montana BHA participated diligently in the public scoping process of the new Elk Management Plan (EMP) draft, providing extensive and detailed comments in July, and encouraged our members to do the same.

On December 1st, FWP released the new, adopted EMP, which will help guide elk management in Montana for the foreseeable future.

We’re happy to see the incredibly problematic and prescriptive over-objective language from the draft removed from the final plan, and instead replaced with an emphasis on giving the Commission the information they need on the status of elk populations and a menu of options to determine the best course of action. In particular, we appreciate the approach of counting elk populations, setting elk population goals, and updating the management plan more frequently.

However, by removing some ranges on elk and deer quotas as proposed in the 2024-25 season-setting, coupled with the carte blanche direction for the Commission found in the new EMP, we believe that too much discretionary power has been given to the FWP Commission who could now potentially eliminate all biological considerations and inject even more politics and other influences into these important quota decisions. This could lead to significant problems and leaves us wondering why we have FWP biologists at all. Under this administration, science-based management has been on the chopping block and we’re seeing the consequences here yet again. Quota ranges must not be removed, and must be set using a biologically backed, publicly vetted process.

Relatedly, we’re pleased with the footnote that states, “in some cases, increased opportunity does not result in increased harvest, specifically if/when additional hunting pressure shifts elk distribution to areas where harvest cannot be achieved.” This signals a greater understanding of the elk distribution issues Montana faces, and why simply offering up more permits or unlimited tags may not help, or even hinder, the achievement of elk management goals.

We remain deeply concerned though with eliminating the guidelines to address 'inaccessible elk' that were found in the 2004 EMP. Throughout this EMP rewrite process, we provided clear suggestions to improve that language so it could be implemented, but instead FWP removed reference to it entirely and effectively chose to ignore the problem. The issue of ‘inaccessible elk’ will not go away if unaddressed, and is at the core of why managing elk in Montana is challenging and contentious. By kicking the can down the road for the FWP Commission to deal with, the department is not living up to the expectation of managing elk as a public trust resource.

Taken as a whole, we do see some positives in this new EMP, like the regional narratives, but overall we’re disappointed by the lack of carefully vetted and lasting solutions presented by FWP.

We had hoped that FWP would present the citizens of Montana with a solid plan grounded in the biology of elk, the management of elk as a public trust resource, and the recognition of complex private-public landscapes and corresponding elk behaviors. We needed an elk plan commensurate with the actual issues and challenges we face. Unfortunately, this new plan falls short of doing that as the department appears more interested in deferring rather than embracing its trust responsibilities.

Montana BHA will move forward fully committed to continuing to work in good faith with the Department and the Commission to improve the elk management conundrums we face, but the new EMP has left us questioning if we’re any better off now than we were with the old plan.

For now, we encourage you to speak up on a variety of season-setting proposals being considered at Thursday’s Fish & Wildlife Commission meeting, including the above mentioned removal of many quota ranges for deer and elk, something we believe is deeply problematic. Learn more and register to comment by noon on Wednesday.

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